Gotham Central Book 3: On the Freak Beat


By Greg Rucka, Ed Brubaker, Michael Lark, Stephen Gaudiano, Jason Alexander & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2754-8 (HB) 978-1-4012-3232-0 (TPB)

One of the great joys of long-lasting, legendary comics characters is their potential for innovation and reinterpretation. There always seems to be another facet or corner to develop. Such a case was Gotham Central, wherein contemporary television sensibilities cannily combined with the deadly drudgery of the long-suffering boys in blue in the world’s most famous four-colour city.

Owing as much to shows such as Homicide: Life on the Streets and Law & Order as it did to the baroque continuity of Batman, the series mixed gritty, authentic police action with a soft-underbelly peek at what the merely mortal guardians and peacekeepers had to put up with in a world of psychotic clowns, flying aliens and scumbag hairballs who just won’t stay dead.

This compilation – available in hardback, soft cover and eBook editions – collects Gotham Central #23-31 (spanning November 2004-July 2005) and opens with a handy double-page feature re-introducing the hardworking stiffs of First Shift, Second Shift and the Police Support Team of the ‘Gotham City Police Department, Major Crimes Unit’ before the dramas start to unfold.

Gotham City is a bad place to be a cop – even a crooked one. If you’re a straight arrow it’s even worse because then both sides of the street want you dead. When Detectives Crispus Allen and Renee Montoya turn their attention to corrupt Crime Scene Investigator Jim Corrigan it sets them both on a path steeped in tragedy and loss… and bloody betrayal. ‘Corrigan’(originally published in issues #23-24) is by regular team Greg Rucka, Michael Lark & Stephen Gaudiano.

The same team bring us ‘Lights Out’ (issue #25) as, in the aftermath of the War Games debacle and resultant bloodbath (see Batman: War Drums; War Games: Outbreak, Tides, Endgame and War Crimes), new police commissioner Akins severs all official ties to the Batman and has the Bat-Signal removed from Police Headquarters roof.

Ed Brubaker & Jason Alexander take us ‘On the Freak Beat’ (#26-27) as Detectives Marcus Driver and (secretly psychic) Josie MacDonald investigate the murder of a televangelist. Despite all the leads and evidence pointing to Catwoman as the killer, their dedicated efforts take them into a sordid world of hypocrisy, S&M, lies and real estate chicanery before the truth comes out and the real culprit is brought to justice…

“Keystone Cops” (issues #28-31) is another superb blend of the procedural and the outlandish as beat cop Andy Kelly is horrifically mutated by a super-criminal’s booby-trap whilst rescuing kids from a fire. Montoya and Allen must cross jurisdictional boundaries and moral landmarks to obtain the assistance of deranged Flash villain Doctor Alchemy if there’s any hope of curing their comrade…

With the most chilling exploration of a super-villain’s motivation in many a year and a generous tip of the hat to The Silence of the Lambs, this is a moody masterpiece with an unsuspected kick in the tail. Rucka writes and Gaudiano graduates from inks to pencils with the embellishment falling to the capable Kano & Gary Amaro to conclude this stunning deep dive into urban atrocity in unforgettable style.
© 2004, 2005, 2010 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Detective Comics: 80 years of Batman Deluxe edition


By Bob Kane & Bill Finger, Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster, Jim Chambers, Mort Weisinger, Jack Kirby & Joe Simon, Don Cameron, Joe Samachson, Edmond Hamilton, John Broome, Gardner Fox, Frank Robbins, Archie Goodwin, Denny O’Neil, Steve Englehart, Bob Rozakis, Alan Brennert, Harlan Ellison, Greg Rucka, Paul Levitz, Brad Meltzer, Scott Snyder, Neil Gaiman, Lee Harris, Dick Sprang, Carmine Infantino, Ruben Moreira, Joe Certa, Sheldon Moldoff, Neal Adams, Walter Simonson, Dick Giordano, Marshall Rogers, Michael Golden, Gene Colan, Shawn Martinbrough, Denys Cowan, Bryan Hitch, Sean Murphy, Mark Chiarello plus many & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-8538-8 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Wholly Dark Knight, Batman!… 9/10

Although he’s frequently played second fiddle to his pioneering predecessor Superman (who debuted in Action Comics #1, June 1938), the Dark Knight has, over his eighty years, grown to become the planet’s most popular superhero. He does have some bragging rights to longevity however, as he debuted in the company’s most prestigious – and arguably premiere – comics title.

Detective Comics #1 had a March 1937 cover-date and was the third and last anthology title devised by luckless pioneer Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson. In 1935, the entrepreneur had seen the potential in Max Gaines’ new invention – the comic book – and quickly conceived and released packages of all-new material entitled New Fun: The Big Comic Magazine and follow-up New Fun/New Adventure (which ultimately became Adventure Comics) under the banner of National Allied Publications.

These broke away from the tentative prototype comics magazines which simply reprinted edited collations of established newspaper strips. They were though as varied and undirected in content as much as any funnies page. Detective Comics was different, specialising only in tales of crime and crimebusters. The initial roster included amongst many others adventurer Speed Saunders, Cosmo, the Phantom of Disguise, Gumshoe Gus and two series by a couple of kids from Cleveland named Siegel & Shuster: Bart Regan: Spy and two-fisted shamus Slam Bradley

Within two years Wheeler-Nicholson had been forced out by his business partners, and eventually his company grew into monolithic DC – for Detective Comics – Comics.

Instrumental in that meteoric rise and monumental success was the hero initially called “The Bat-Man” when he debuted in the 27th issue, dated May 1939…

This bold compilation celebrates the magic of that title and it’s reaching the magic number 1000, not just with the now-traditional re-runs of classic Batman tales, but through informative articles and fascinating glimpses at some of the other characters who shared those (mostly) monthly pages with him.

Available as a bonanza hardback and in various digital formats, this epic album curates material from Detective Comics#20, 27, 38, 60, 64, 66, 140, 151, 225, 233, 267, 298, 327, 359, 400, 437, 443, 457, 474, 482, 500, 567, 742 plus Detective Comics volume 2 #27, and opens with an Introduction by Dan Didio, a mission-statement Batman pin-up from Jim Lee, an historically erudite Editor’s Note by Paul Levitz, and a fond Foreword from US Senator Patrick Leahy, before the parade of comic tales and eye-catching covers kicks off.

Most early episodes were untitled, but for everyone’s convenience have here been given descriptive appellations by the editors. Thus, after its iconic cover by Leo O’Mealia, a groundbreaking treat from Detective Comics #20 (October 1939) reveals the title’s original prototypical costumed crusader as The Crimson Avenger (at this time a knock-off of pulp paragons such as The Shadow, Spider or Green Hornet) tackles a corrupt attorney and his gang in ‘Block Buster’; a rousing romp by Jim Chambers.

The scene was set: the sheriffs, P.I.s, government operatives and gentleman daredevils now moved over a bit to welcome a new kind of white knight: the masked mystery man…

That literary landscape is examined in Anthony Tollin’s essay Batman Foreshadowed, after which Detective Comics #27 (with cover by Bob Kane) provides ‘The Case of the Chemical Syndicate’ by Bill Finger & Kane: a spartan, understated yarn introducing dilettante playboy criminologist Bruce Wayne, craftily inserting himself into a straightforward crime-caper wherein a cabal of industrialists are successively murdered. The killings stop only after an eerie figure dubbed “The Bat-Man” intrudes on Police Commissioner Gordon’s stalled investigation, pitilessly exposing and dealing with the hidden killer.

Also taken from that landmark issue, ‘The Murderer on Vacation’ by Jerry Seigel & Joe Shuster reveals how hardboiled private investigator Slam Bradley and sidekick Shorty Morgan track an escaped convict to snowy Switzerland to ensure the killer’s appointment with the electric chair is met…

Following another iconic cover by Kane & Jerry Robinson, #38 (April 1940 by Finger, Kane & Robinson) changes the freshly emerging landscape of comic books forever with ‘Robin, The Boy Wonder’: child trapeze artist Dick Graysonwhose performer parents are murdered before his eyes and who thereafter joins Batman in a lifelong quest for justice, beginning with bringing down mobster mad dog Boss Zucco

With a pattern of high-flying action and savvy crime-crushing established, the Dynamic Duo went from strength to strength, but they were not the only masked marvels on show. Amateur radio technician and District Attorney’s clerk Larry Jordan used super-science and brilliant invention to battle crime as Air Wave for six years. Behind a Robinson/Fred Ray Batman cover, #60’s ‘The Case of the Missing Evidence’ (February 1942 by Mort Weisinger, Lee Harris/Harris Levy & Charles Paris) debuts the Microphonic Manhunter who methodically sets about dismantling the murderous Scalotti gang…

As WWII gripped America’s servicemen and Home Front masses, comic book dream team Joe Simon & Jack Kirby quit Timely Comics after publisher Martin Goodman failed to make good on his financial obligations. They jumped ship to National/DC, who welcomed them with open arms and a big chequebook.

Initially an unhappy fit, bursting with brash, bold ideas the company were uncomfortable with, the pair were handed two failing strips to play with until they found their creative feet. After proving their worth with The Sandman and Manhunter, they were left to their own devices and promptly perfected comic books’ “Kid Gang” genre with a unique junior Foreign Legion entitled The Boy Commandos. These kids were soon sharing the spotlight with Batman in flagship Detective Comics and in a solo title which was frequently amongst the company’s top three sellers.

A Robinson Dynamic Duo cover for #64 (June 1942) foreshadows a new kind of comics experience as ‘The Commandos are Coming’ cleverly follows the path of a French Nazi collaborator who finds the courage to fight against his country’s conquerors after meeting the bombastic military unit.

We never learn how or why American Captain Rip Carter commands a British Commando unit nor why he’s allowed to bring a quartet of war-orphans with him on a succession of deadly sorties into “Festung Europa”, North Africa, the Pacific or Indo-Chinese theatres of war. All we must accept is that cockney urchin Alfy Twidgett, French garcon Pierre (later unobtrusively renamed Andre) Chavard, little Dutch boy Jan Haasen and rough, tough lout Brooklyn are fighting the battles we would if we only had the chance…

‘The Crimes of Two-Face!’ begin in #66 (August 1942 and sporting a Robinson/George Roussos cover): detailing the debut of a true classic villain courtesy of Finger, Kane & Robinson. A sophisticate classical tragedy in crime-caper form, here Gotham DA Harvey Kent (whose name was later changed by editorial diktat to Dent) is disfigured in court and goes mad – becoming a conflicted thief and insanely unpredictable killer who remains one of the Caped Crusader’s greatest foes.

As seen on the Win Mortimer cover, ‘The Riddler!’ first challenged Batman and Robin in #140 (October 1948 by Finger, Dick Sprang, Charles Paris) as carnival con-man and inveterate cheat Edward Nigma takes his obsession with puzzles to a perilous extreme: becoming a costumed criminal and matching wits with the brilliant Batman in a contest that threatens to turn the entire city upside down.

‘The Origin of Pow-Wow Smith!’ in #151 (September 1949) awaits behind a Batman cover by Jim Mooney, but addresses the growing popularity of western tales as Don Cameron, Carmine Infantino & George Klein explore the life of a college-educated Indian Lawman who becomes a modern-day sheriff.

As super heroes lost their appeal in the 1950s, Detective Comics shed its costumed cohort for more rationalistic reasoners and grounded champions. One of the most offbeat was Roy Raymond, a TV personality who hosted hit series Impossible… But True.

Illustrated by Ruben Moreira, it launched in #153 (November 1949 and proudly displaying a Sprang Bat-cover) with ‘The Land of Lost Years!’ The first tale set the pattern: researchers or members of the public would present weird or “supernatural” items or mysteries that the arch-debunker would inevitably expose as misunderstanding, mistake or, as in this case of this reverse fountain of youth, criminal fraud…

Dale Cendali then presents A Peek Behind the Pages, sharing pages from Lew Sayre Schwartz’s Sketchbook circa his illustration of the lead story in Detective Comics #200, after which issue #225 (November 1955) manifests the first new superhero of the Silver Age, courtesy of Joe Samachson Joe Certa.

At the height of US Flying Saucer fever and following a bat-cover from Win Mortimer, John Jones, Manhunter from Mars debuted in ‘The Strange Experiment of Dr. Erdel’: describing how a reclusive genius builds a robot-brain to access Time, Space and the Fourth Dimension, accidentally plucking an alien scientist from his home on Mars. After a brief conversation with his unfortunate guest, Erdel succumbs to a heart attack whilst attempting to return the incredible J’onn J’onzz to his point of origin.

Marooned on Earth, the Martian realises his new home is riddled with the primitive cancer of Crime and determines to use his natural abilities (which include telepathy, mind-over-matter psychokinesis, shape-shifting, invisibility, intangibility, super-strength, speed, flight, vision, invulnerability and many others) to eradicate the evil, working clandestinely disguised as a human policeman. His only safety concern is the commonplace chemical reaction of fire which saps Martians of all their mighty powers. With his name Americanised to John Jones he enlists as a Police Detective and begins an auspicious career…

Today fans are used to a vast battalion of bat-themed and leather-winged champions haunting Gotham City and its troubled environs, but for the longest time it was just Bruce and Dick, occasionally with their borrowed dog Ace, keeping crime on the run. However, in Detective Comics #233 (July 1956, three months before the debut of The Flash officially ushered in the Silver Age) the editorial powers-that-be unleashed bold heiress Kathy Kane, who incessantly suited-up in chiropteran red-&-yellow for the next eight years.

‘The Bat-Woman’ by Edmond Hamilton, Moldoff & Paris premiered with the former circus acrobat bursting into Batman’s life, challenging him to discover her secret identity at the risk of exposing his own…

Trauma by Glen David Gold pauses the comics action to discuss the role and symbolism of orphans before a return to incipient family-friendly silliness as ‘Batman Meets Bat-Mite!’ #267 (May 1959 by Finger, Moldoff & Paris) takes us to a new level. The introduction of the Gotham Guardian’s most controversial “partner” – a pestiferous, prank-playing extra-dimensional elf who adored the Dynamic Duo and used his magic to extend or amp up the perils he enjoyed observing – was, for many readers, an all-time low but the strange scamp had his fans too…

In an era overburdened by gangsters and bank heists, new super villains were rare but not unknown. From #298 (December 1961) Finger, Moldoff & Paris’ ‘The Challenge of Clay-Face’ saw our heroes battle shapeshifting thief Matt Hagen who would return many times before Batman underwent a big change and media apotheosis…

By the end of 1963, Julius Schwartz had revived much of DC’s superhero line – and the entire industry – with his modernization of masked champions and costumed characters, and was asked to work his magic with the Caped Crusader. Bringing his usual team of creators with him, he stripped down the trappings and returned to the core-concept, bringing a modern take to the capture of criminals, whilst downplaying all the Aliens, outlandish villains and daft transformation tales. He even oversaw a streamlining and rationalisation of the art style itself.

The most apparent change to us kids was a yellow circle around the Bat-symbol, but more fundamentally the stories themselves changed. Subtle menace had re-entered the comfortable and abstract world of Gotham City. The revolution began with Detective Comics #327 (cover-dated May 1964) as ‘The Mystery of the Menacing Mask!’ – written by John Broome and illustrated by Carmine Infantino & Joe Giella presented a baffling “Howdunnit?” steeped in action and suspense.

Tracking an underground pipeline of missing crooks and encountering a wise guy who was literally untouchable underlined the renewed intention to emphasise the “Detective” part of the title for the foreseeable future. This comic was to be a brain-teaser from now on…

The advent of the Batman TV show soon followed and the world went Bat-manic…

The series inevitably influenced the comics and, as well as a lightening of tone, threw up new characters.

In ‘The Million Dollar Debut of Batgirl!’ (Detective Comics, #359, cover-dated January 1967) writer Gardner Fox and art team supreme Carmine Infantino & Sid Greene introduce Barbara Gordon, mousy librarian and daughter of the venerable Police Commissioner into the superhero limelight. By the time the third TV season began on September 14, 1967, she was well-established.

A different Batgirl, Betty Kane, niece of the 1950s Batwoman, was already a comics fixture, but for reasons far too complex and irrelevant to mention was conveniently forgotten to make room for the new, empowered woman in the fresh tradition of Emma Peel, Honey West and the Girl from U.N.C.L.E. She was pretty hot too, which is always a plus for television…

Whereas she fought the Penguin on the small screen, her paper origin features the no less ludicrous but at least visually forbidding Killer Moth in a clever yarn that still stands up today. The Lethal Lepidopteran was about to kidnap Bruce Wayne until Babs stumbles in and busts up his scheme…

After San Diego’s former top cop Shelley Zimmerman discusses the value of ‘Inspiration’ we jump to a darker decade for ‘Challenge of the Man-Bat’ (Detective Comics #400, June 1970) wherein Frank Robbins, Neal Adams & Dick Giordano use the big anniversary to launch a dark counterpoint to the Gotham Gangbuster when driven scientist Kirk Langstromcreates a serum to make himself superior to Batman… and pays a heavy price for his hubris.

One of the most celebrated superhero series in comics history, Manhunter catapulted young Walter Simonson to the front ranks of creators, revolutionised the way dramatic adventures were told and still remains the most lauded back-up strip ever produced.

Concocted and scripted by genial genius and then-neophyte editor Archie Goodwin as a back-up strip for Detective (running for just a year from #437-443, October/November 1973 to October/November 1974), the seven episodes – a mere 68 pages – won six Academy of Comic Book Arts Awards during its far too brief run.

Following a rousing Jim Aparo cover for #437, opening episode ‘The Himalayan Incident’ sees Interpol agent Christine St. Clair tracking a seeming super-assassin who acts like no true criminal. Although not included here the pursuit leads her to the story of dead hero Paul Kirk (during the Golden Age he was the Manhunter briefly crafted by Simon & Kirby): a big game hunter and part-time costumed mystery man.

Becoming a dirty jobs specialist for the Allies in WWII, he lost all love of life and died in a hunting accident in 1946. Decades later he seemingly resurfaced, and came to the attention of St. Clair. Thinking him no more than an identity thief she soon uncovered an incredible plot by a cadre of the World’s greatest scientists who had formed an organisation to assume control of the planet.

The Council had infiltrated all corridors of power, making huge technological advances (such as stealing the hero’s individuality by cloning him into an army of superior soldiers), slowly achieving their goals with no-one the wiser, until the returned Paul Kirk upset their plans and resolved to thwart their ultimate goals…

Kirk’s entire tragic quest to regain his humanity and dignity culminated in a terse team-up after Batman stumbles into the plot, almost inadvertently handing the Council ultimate victory. ‘Götterdämmerung’ (#443 by Goodwin & Simonson) fully lived up to its title and perfectly wrapped up the saga.

With cover and illustration by Dick Giordano, ‘There is No Hope in Crime Alley!’ (#457, March 1976, scripted by Denny O’Neil, with inks by Terry Austin) is a powerful and genuinely moving tale introducing pacifist Leslie Thompkins: the woman who first cared for the boy Bruce Wayne on the night his parents were murdered, after which O’Neil uses his prose Time Machine to deliver a telling history lesson about publishing and storytelling.

Next up is a rousing tale from a trend-setting run by Steve Englehart, Marshall Rogers & Austin. Detective # 474 (December 1977) uses ‘The Deadshot Ricochet’ to update an old loser. The second-ever appearance of a murderous high society dilettante sniper (after his initial outing in Batman #59, 1950) sees frustrated killer Floyd Lawton escape jail and go in search of simple, honest revenge. The tale so reinvigorated the third-rate trick-shooter that he’s seldom been missing from the DC Universe since; starring in a number of series such as Suicide Squad and Secret Six, a couple of eponymous miniseries and on both silver and small screens.

Devised by Bob Rozakis, Michael Golden & Bob Smith, ‘Bat-Mite’s New York Adventure!’ was a short feature in giant-sized Detective Comics #482 (February/March 1979, sporting a cover by Rich Buckler & Giordano) that begat an unlikely revival for the impetuous imp. A hilarious, fourth-wall busting romp, it sees the geeky trans-dimensional sprite invading the offices of DC comics to deliver a personal protest at his seeming sidelining in recent years…

Author, journalist and activist Cory Doctorow examines cultural content and impact in Occupy Gotham before major anniversary issue Detective #500 (March 1981) celebrates by bringing Batman and Robin to another Earth to prevent the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne in the beguiling altered vision ‘To Kill a Legend’ by Alan Brennert & Giordano, supplemented by a jam cover courtesy of Aparo, Giordano, Infantino, Simonson & Joe Kubert.

As the DCU underwent a radical reboot during Crisis on Infinite Earths, a run of experimental stories resulted in Harlan Ellison, Gene Colan & Bob Smith detailing a city crime patrol where nothing goes right on ‘The Night of Thanks, But No Thanks!’ (#567 October 1986).

‘The Honored Dead’ (#742 March 2000) by Greg Rucka, Shawn Martinbrough & Steve Mitchell foucuses on a character as old and resilient as Batman himself as recently bereaved Police Commissioner Jim Gordon returns to duty in only to lose more colleagues and descend into a vengeful, suicidal spiral. Good thing he still has a few unconventional friends to pull him through…

Closing this immense commemorative tome comes Lost Stories offering a glimpse at commissioned works which for a variety of reasons never saw print: in this case excerpts from aborted 2012 miniseries ‘Batman: Mortality’ by Paul Levitz, Denys Cowan & John Floyd, represented here by pages of script and original art, before an all-star selection from rebooted Detective Comics volume 2 #27 (March 2014) reimagines ‘The Case of the Chemical Syndicate’ via Brad Meltzer & Bryan Hitch, whilst Scott Snyder & Sean Murphy takes us into the far future to see the evolution of the Dark Knight in ‘Twenty-Seven’.

Illustrated by Mark Chiarello, ‘Watching from the Shadows’ is Neil Gaiman’s fond appreciation of the hero and his universe, after which ‘Cover Highlights’ brings a selection of stunning examples from the Golden, Silver, Bronze andDark ages of Gotham Guardian, as well as the very best of Detective Comics ‘Now’.

Should you be of a scholarly or just plain reverential mood you can then study the copious ‘Biographies’ section so you know who to thank…

Exciting, epochal and unmissable, this is book for all fans of superhero stories.
© 1937, 1938, 1939, 1940, 1942, 1948, 1949, 1951, 1955, 1956, 1959, 1961, 1964, 1967, 1970, 1973, 1974, 1976, 1977, 1979, 1981, 1986, 2000, 2014, 2019 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Adventures of Tintin: Flight 714 to Sydney


By Hergé, Bob De Moor, Roger Leloup and others, translated by Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper & Michael Turner (Egmont UK/Methuen/Little Brown Books)
ISBN: 978-1-40520-821-5 (HB) 978-0-31635-837-8 (Album PB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Great British Tradition of Belgian Origin. Gotta Get ‘Em All… 10/10

Georges Prosper Remi, AKA Hergé, created an eternal masterpiece of graphic literature with his tales of a plucky boy reporter and entourage of iconic associates. Singly, and later with assistants including Edgar P. Jacobs, Bob de Moor, Roger Leloup and other supreme stylists of the Hergé Studio, he created 23 timeless yarns (initially serialised in instalments for a variety of newspaper periodicals) which have since grown beyond their pop culture roots to attain the status of High Art and international cultural icons.

On leaving school in 1925, Remi began working for conservative Catholic newspaper Le Vingtiéme Siécle where he fell under the influence of its Svengali-esque editor Abbot Norbert Wallez. A devoted boy scout, one year later the artist was producing his first strip series – The Adventures of Totor – for monthly Boy Scouts of Belgium magazine. By 1928 Remi was in charge of producing the contents of the newspaper’s weekly children’s supplement Le Petit Vingtiéme.

While he was illustrating The Adventures of Flup, Nénesse, Poussette and Cochonette – written by the staff sports reporter – Wallez required his compliant creative cash-cow to concoct a new and contemporary adventure series. Perhaps a young reporter who roamed the world, doing good whilst displaying solid Catholic values and virtues?

The rest is history…

Some of that history is quite dark: During the Nazi Occupation of Belgium, Le Vingtiéme Siécle was closed down and Hergé was compelled to move his supremely popular strip to daily newspaper Le Soir (Brussels’ most prominent French-language periodical, and thus appropriated and controlled by the Nazis).

He diligently toiled on for the duration, but following Belgium’s liberation was accused of collaboration and even of being a Nazi sympathiser. It took the intervention of Belgian Resistance war-hero Raymond Leblanc to dispel the cloud over Hergé, which he did by simply vouching for the cartoonist through words and deeds.

Leblanc provided cash to create a new magazine – Le Journal de Tintin – which he published and managed. The anthology comic swiftly achieved a huge weekly circulation, allowing Remi and his studio team to remaster past tales: excising material dictated by the Fascist invaders to ideologically shade the wartime adventures. These modernising post-war exercises also generally improved and updated the great tales, just in time for Tintin to become a global phenomenon, both in books and as an early star of animated TV adventure.

With the war over and his reputation restored, Hergé entered the most successful period of his artistic career. He had mastered his storytelling craft, possessed a dedicated audience eager for his every effort and was finally able to say exactly what he wanted in his work, free from fear or censure, if not his personal demons and declining health…

The greatest sign of this was not substantially in the comics tales – although Hergé continued to tinker with the form of his efforts – but rather in how long the gaps were between new exploits. The last romp had finished serialisation in September 1962 and been collected as an album in 1963. Vol 714 pour Sydney began its weekly run in Le Journal de Tintin #936 – 27th September 1966 – and concluded in #997, cover-dated November 28th 1967. The inevitable book collection came in May 1968.

Flight 714 To Sydney appears to be a return to classic adventure, but conceals some ironic modernist twists, opening with our heroes hurriedly en route to Australia. During an intrigue-redolent stopover at Djakarta, Tintin, Captain Haddock and Professor Calculus are inveigled (almost duped) into joining unconventional and somewhat unpleasant aviation tycoon Laszlo Carreidas on his personal supersonic prototype. The petty-minded multi-millionaire obviously has some ulterior design but cannot be dissuaded.

However, due to the type of coincidence that plagues our heroes, that plane has been targeted by the villainous outlaw Rastapopoulos whose gang hijack the aircraft and land it on a desolate Pacific island. The former criminal mastermind has a crazy scheme to siphon off Carreidas’ fortune but has lost a lot of his old sinister efficiency…

After many ploys and countermoves between the opposing forces, and with danger a constant companion, the prisoners escape the villain’s clutches only to discover that the Island is volcanic and conceals a fantastic ancient secret that dwarfs the threat of mere death and penury before escalating to a spectacular climax no reader will ever forget…

Although full of Hergé’s trademark slapstick humour, there is also a sly undercurrent of self-examination that highlights the intrinsic futility of the criminals’ acts. As time has passed, the murderous human monsters have all been exposed as foolish, posturing and largely ineffectual.

Nevertheless, the yarn is primarily an extremely effective, suspenseful action thriller with science fiction roots as the author plays with the multifarious strands of international research then in vogue which led to Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods and other lesser known tracts of cod science.

Once more the supernormal plays a large part in proceedings – but not as a malign force – and this time science and rationality, not the supernatural, are the basis of the wonderment. Flight 714 To Sydney is slick, compelling and astoundingly engaging: a true epic escapade no fan of fun could fail to adore.
Flight 714 To Sydney: artwork © 1968 Casterman, Paris & Tournai. Text © 1968 Egmont UK Limited. All rights reserved.

The Pits of Hell


By Ebisu Yoshikazu (Breakdown Press)
ISBN: 978-1-91108-108-1 (PB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Shocking, Momentous, Unmissable… 8/10

Please be warned: I’ll be using some harsh language further down: if you of your dependents are likely to be offended, please skip this review. You certainly won’t be comfortable reading the book we’re reviewing here…

If you’re one of those people who’s never read a manga tale, or who’s been tempted but discouraged by the terrifying number of volumes these tales can run to, here’s a delicious feast of fantasy fables complete in one book revealing all that’s best about comics from the East in one darkly digestible big gulp.

Although an industry of immense, almost incomprehensible variety, much of Japan’s output is never seen in western translation, so for us, most manga – divided into story genres we easily recognise – can be lazily characterised by a fast, raucous, over-stylised, occasionally choppy style and manner of delivery, offering peeks into the quirks of a foreign culture through coy sensuality, carefully managed action and “aw shucks” conviviality.

It’s not all like that.

This volume gathers emphatically eerie and definitely disturbing short stories for adults that originate from the nation’s rebellious heta-uma movement (equivalent to but not the same as our late 1970s Punk revolution), all crafted by a fringe creator who became a true national treasure…

Ebisu Yoshikazu began as an outsider: a self-trained manga maker who shunned the sleek polish of mainstream Japanese comics to craft deeply personal ant-art yarns, initially for avant-garde counter culture anthology style icon Garo and landmark experiment Jam, but later for many other magazines after his harsh material struck a chord with 1970s-1980s readers, increasingly reeling from social and economic change.

Mr. Yoshikazu was born in Amakusa, Kumamoto Prefecture in October 1947 and raised in Nagasaki, where he was fatefully shaped by the post war trauma that permeated the region and the country. Drawing comics from early on, he was especially influenced by the fantasy works of Osamu Tezuka and Mitsuteru Yokoyama, but as a teenager his life changed when he discovered the gekiga (“Dramatic Pictures”) comics sub-genre as well as American action movies.

He moved to Tokyo in 1970 and – while working menial jobs – began submitting stories to Garo in 1973. His bleak, violently surreal, dream-based efforts featured bizarre, antisocial situations and outcomes and found a welcome – if unpaid – home in the magazine. He became a fan favourite without his knowledge and when years later he finally released a compilation of his tales, was astonished to see it become a huge hit with many reprintings.

The creatively-driven working-class manga-maker – think more Harvey Pekar than Harvey Kurtzman – parlayed his growing fame as an outsider artist and misfit into mass-media celebrity, but latterly suffered a great loss of fame, prestige and revenue following a gambling scandal.

In Japan, commercial betting is illegal except in certain, highly proscribed and policed situations. That doesn’t bother Ebisu Yoshikazu who remains a proud advocate and champion of what many people consider a shameful addiction. His passion for wagers has shaped his life and continues to …

Heta-uma transliterates to “bad-good” or “bad but nice”: glorying in the power of raw, primitivist graphics and narratives that are seductively seditious whilst exploring uncomfortable themes, so please be warned that most of these nine early vignettes are brutally violent and also distressing on other, more intimate levels. If you’re looking for Western equivalents, go no further than the more excessive outings of Gary Panter and Johnny Ryan…

This potent tome reprints that first compilation in English and is preceded (or followed by – depending on your graphic orientation, as the comics portion of the book is traditional manga right to left, end to beginning format) by a series of text features including ‘Why is This So Good?’: a deconstruction of the stories by Garo editor Minami Shinbō from the 1981 original compilation.

‘About these Comics’ offers the author’s own thoughts on the material from 2016 and is followed by extended essay ‘Damn All Gamblers to the Pits of Hell’ by translator/editor Ryan Holmberg affording us not only history, context and insight into the artist but also gauging the effects of his works on the industry and society.

The stories begin with a shocking answer to classroom inattention in ‘Teachers Damned to the Pits of Hell’ after which a poor family hungrily await the results of father’s latest addictive session at the pachinko parlour in ‘Fuck Off’.

Many stories take a hard but always off-kilter look at employment and wage earning. ‘Workplace’ deals with a time when Yoshikazu worked as a sign designer’s much-abused assistant and vicariously, cathartically, depicts what the menial wanted most, whereas ‘Wiped Out Workers’ details a plague of selective narcolepsy that grips salarymen and other hapless toilers during their daily travails.

‘Tempest of Love’ addresses the imbalance and inequality of the sexes as a job-enhancing abacus class devolves into a ghastly crime scene, whilst a punter’s obsessive attention to the sanctioned boat races and his crucial bets result in a strange series of events that can only be explained by ‘ESP’…

More uncomfortable sexual tension is dangerously unleashed at the ‘Late Night Party’ provided by a smug boss before the spiralling cost of living sparks civil unrest and deadly consequences in ‘Battles without Honor and Humanity: A Documentary’.

The walk on the weird wild side then concludes with a phantasmagorical deluge of uncanny situations and crises as a worker takes his son for a walk in ‘Salaryman in Hell’

By no means a work of universal appeal, The Pits of Hell provides a stunning and revelatory look at the other side of Japanese comics: one no fan of the medium can afford to miss.
English edition © 2019 Breakdown Press. Translation and essay © 2019 Ryan Holmberg. All rights reserved.

Adventures of Tintin: The Castafiore Emerald


By Hergé, Bob De Moor, Roger Leloup and others, translated by Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper & Michael Turner (Egmont UK)
ISBN: 978-1-40520-820-8(HB) 978-1-40520-632-7(Album PB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Great British Tradition of Belgian Origin. Get ’Em All… 10/10

Georges Prosper Remi, known all over the world as Hergé, created a timeless masterpiece of graphic literature with his tales of a plucky boy reporter and entourage of iconic associates.

Singly, and later with assistants including Edgar P. Jacobs, Bob de Moor and other supreme stylists of the Hergé Studio, he created 23 timeless yarns (initially serialised in instalments for a variety of newspaper periodicals) which have grown beyond their pop culture roots to attain the status of High Art.

On leaving school in 1925, Remi began working for conservative Catholic newspaper Le Vingtiéme Siécle where he fell under the influence of its Svengali-esque editor Abbot Norbert Wallez. A devoted boy scout, one year later the artist was producing his first strip series – The Adventures of Totor – for monthly Boy Scouts of Belgium magazine. By 1928 Remi was in charge of producing the contents of the newspaper’s weekly children’s supplement Le Petit Vingtiéme.

While he was illustrating The Adventures of Flup, Nénesse, Poussette and Cochonette written by the staff sports reporter – Wallez required his compliant creative cash-cow to concoct a new and contemporary adventure series. Perhaps a young reporter who roamed the world, doing good whilst displaying solid Catholic values and virtues?

The rest is history…

Some of that history is quite dark: During the Nazi Occupation of Belgium, Le Vingtiéme Siécle was closed down and Hergé was compelled to move his supremely popular strip to daily newspaper Le Soir (Brussels’ most prominent French-language periodical, and thus appropriated and controlled by the Nazis).

He diligently toiled on for the duration, but following Belgium’s liberation was accused of collaboration and even of being a Nazi sympathiser. It took the intervention of Belgian Resistance war-hero Raymond Leblanc to dispel the cloud over Hergé, which he did by simply vouching for the cartoonist through words and deeds.

Leblanc provided cash to create a new magazine – Le Journal de Tintin – which he published and managed. The anthology comic swiftly achieved a weekly circulation in the hundreds of thousands, which allowed Remi and his growing studio team to remaster past tales: excising material dictated by the Fascist occupiers and reluctantly added to ideologically shade the wartime adventures. These modernising post-war exercises also generally improved and updated the great tales, just in time for Tintin to become a global phenomenon.

With the war over and his reputation restored, Hergé entered the most successful period of his artistic career. He had mastered his storytelling craft, possessed a dedicated audience eager for his every effort and was finally able to say exactly what he wanted in his work, free from fear or censure.

Sadly, Hergé’s personal life was less satisfactory, but although plagued by physical and mental health problems, the travails only seemed to enhance his storytelling abilities…

Le Bijoux de la Castafiore was serialised in Le Journal de Tintin from 4th July 1961 to September 4th 1962 with the inevitable book collection released in 1963. For the first time, The English edition was published in the same years as its European original…

The Castafiore Emerald is quite a departure from the eerie bleak thriller that preceded it (Tintin in Tibet) and the general run of globetrotting tales. The resolution of that icy escapade seemed to have purged much of the turmoil and trauma from the artist’s psyche.

His production rate – but not the quality – slowed to a leisurely crawl as he became a world traveller himself, visiting America, Taiwan and many other places he had featured in the exploits of his immortal boy reporter. Fans would wait fifteen years for these last three adventures to be done.

When the blithely unstoppable operatic grand dame Bianca Castafiore imposes herself on Captain Haddock at Marlinspike Hall – complete with fawning entourage and a swarm of reporters in hot pursuit – she turns the place upside down, destroying the irascible mariner’s peace-of-mind.

A flighty force of nature claiming to crave isolation and quiet recuperation, the Diva floods Marlinspike with anxiety, just as Tintin and the Captain are attempting to win fair treatment for a roving band of gipsies (let’s call them Roma now, shall we?).

Much to the chagrin of the irascible mariner, when the pride of Castafiore’s fabulous jewels is stolen, events take a constantly escalating, surreal and particularly embarrassing turn before Tintin finally solves the case through calm, cool deduction.

Unlike the rest of the canon, this tale is restricted – like a drawing room mystery – to one locale: the impressive house and grounds inherited by Haddock as inhabited by a hilarious cast of regulars including acerbic, long-suffering butler Nestor and deranged genius Professor Calculus. It reads very much like an Alfred Hitchcock sparkling thriller from the 1950s: Light, airy, even frothy in places, with the emphasis always on laughs…

There are no real villains but plenty of diabolical happenstance generating slapstick action and wry humour while affording Hergé plenty of opportunities to take pot-shots at the media, Society – High and low – and even the then-pervasive and ever-growing phenomenon of television itself.

The tale was published in 1961. It would be five years until the next one.

At least you don’t have to wait: this comics masterpiece can – and should – be yours as soon as possible.
The Castafiore Emerald: artwork © 1963 by Casterman, Paris & Tournai. Text © 1963 Methuen & Co Ltd. All rights reserved.

James Bond: Hammerhead


By Andy Diggle, Luca Casalanguida & various (Dynamite Entertainment)
ISBN: 978-1-52410-322-4 (HB) 978-1-52410-713-0 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Epic Blockbuster Entertainment… 10/10

James Bond is the ultimate secret agent. You all know that and have – thanks to the multi-media empire that has grown up around Ian Fleming’s novel creation – your own vision of what he looks like and what he does. That’s what dictates how you respond to every new movie, game or novel.

Amongst those various iterations are some exceedingly enjoyable comicbook and newspaper strip versions detailing the further exploits of 007 which have never truly found the appreciation they rightly deserve. This collection – available in hardback trade paperback and digital iterations – is probably one of them. It originates from 2017, compiling a 6-issue miniseries from licensing specialists Dynamite Entertainment.

Their fabulously engaging take on the veteran antihero was originally redefined by Warren Ellis & illustrator Jason Masters, who jettisoned decades of gaudy paraphernalia that had accumulated around the ultimate franchise star, opting instead for a stripped-down, pared-back, no-nonsense agent who is all business. Successive creative teams have maintained that sleek, swift efficiency and at last Andy (The Losers, Green Arrow: Year One, Shadowland, Gamekeeper, Uncanny) Diggle: a British writer seemingly born to extend the adventures of 007.

Deftly and effectively handling the stunning visuals is Luca Casalanguida whose art – in combination with colourist Chris Blythe and letterer Simon Bowland – stirs wonderfully potent echoes of illustrator Yaroslav Horak who made the original newspaper strip such a heady delight.

This high-tech terrorism tale opens with Bond in Venezuela, bloodily failing his assignment to capture lethal hacker-for-hire Saxon and gather intel on enigmatic terrorist Kraken. Hauled – after the opening credits, of course – back to MI6 HQ in Vauxhall Cross, London, the agent is suitably carpeted by M before being fobbed off with a babysitting job.

His charge is Lord Bernard Hunt, a British Arms magnate currently upgrading the UK’s tired old Trident Nuclear arsenal. Hunt’s company is also a major exporter of cutting-edge weaponry, and Bond is to shadow him at an arms fair in Dubai…

Thankfully there’s compensation of a sort as the gunsmith’s luscious daughter Victoria is also the firm’s Vice President. A dedicated patriot and anglophile, “Tory” finds plenty of ways to amuse the bodyguard: everything from a guided tour of the company’s new super toy – a colossal rail gun dubbed Hammerhead – to drinking and games…

Tragically, Kraken is again one step ahead of Bond and the mission goes disastrously wrong…

Meanwhile back in Blighty, an attack on a Hunt helicopter in Scotland results in the loss of a mothballed Trident warhead…

With Tory’s help, Bond is soon on the track of the suspected perpetrators. After a great deal of research, battle and bloodshed, a trail leads to Yemeni smuggler Karim Malfakhar. However, despite being responsible for most of the bodycount, Bond is not content with how the mission is unfolding. Something is not right…

Black Crannog is Hunt’s Nuclear Reprocessing Facility: a sea platform in the Outer Hebrides where Tory welcomes M, Miss Moneypenny and Defence Secretary Simon Wallis to discuss the crisis. When Kraken springs a trap, not all of them survive…

Happily, in the interim, Bond has put all the piece together correctly and is heading for the rig in a Royal Navy Ballistic Missile Submarine with a full team of SBS (Special Boat Service) commandos. As Kraken proudly initiates the final stage of a plan to nuke London and usher in a new era of warfare, Bond makes another spectacular last-ditch assault to save the day and kill his latest foe.

Luckily, Black Crannog is literally packed with super weapons…

Offering all the traditional Bond set-pieces such as exotic locales, spectacular chases and astoundingly protracted fight sequences, this is a rousing mystery romp fans will adore, supported by a gallery of eye-catching variant covers by Francesco Francavilla, Robert Hack & Ron Salas, plus art features detailing Casalanguida’s process from layout to finished line art and character design sketches.

This riotous espionage episode is fast, furious and impeccably stylish: in short, another ideal James Bond thriller, that will leave you both shaken and stirred…
© 2017 Ian Fleming Publications, Ltd. James Bond and 007 are ™ Danjaq LLC, used under license by Ian Fleming Publications, Ltd. All rights reserved.

Who Killed Kenny? – 45 Cases to Solve


By Pera Comics (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-6811-2224-3 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Compelling Crime Cartooning… 8/10

There’s an irreverent, adult-oriented animated TV show about really unpleasant kids that’s quite popular around the world. It’s got a number of catch-phrases that people in the know often quote to each other. This book is nothing to do with that show in any way at all and besides, imitation as the cheapest sincerest form of flattery…

Seriously though, this tiny (130x 160 mm) hardback – or digital – diversion is as much game and quizbook as comics extravaganza, and although tipping its hat to the iconic South Park, is in fact a hugely popular fair play mystery game developed by cartoonist Alessandro Perugini and unleashed periodically on Instagram.

As “Pera Comics”, the artist explains it all in ‘Who is Pera’ and ‘Who is Kenny?’ but unless I’ve already convinced you to dash off and buy, I’ll blather on a bit and describe how the eponymous latter is a perpetual victim cast adrift in time and space and how each easily-accessible cartoon adventure finds him dead. From clues visual and verbal, participants must decide whether his fate is accident, suicide or murder. You get points for correct answers and rise up the rankings from Simple Agent through various Detective grades to, ultimately, a Pera Detective!

The eccentric exploits begin in ancient Rome with lengthy introductory adventure ‘The Ides of Kenny!’, to be followed by a flood of rapid-fire, funny, quirky brain-teasers such as ‘Who Killed Kenny? Devil or God?’, ‘Who Killed Kenny? Beethoven or Mozart’, ‘Who Killed Kenny? A, B, or C?’, ‘Homicide or Suicide?’, and ‘Who Killed Kenny? Zombie or Vampire?’.

The enjoyment and bloodletting never seem to end!
Deliriously daft, morbidly macabre and insanely addictive, this is a splendid treat for the easily bored with idle hands and will make for an ideal stocking-stuffer.
© 2018 Pera Comics/Tunué S.r.l. © 2019 NBM for the English translation.

Who Killed Kenny? will be published on November 14th 2019 and is available for pre-order now.
For more information and other great reads go to NBM Publishing at nbmpub.com

Mysterious Traveler: The Steve Ditko Archives volume 3


By Steve Ditko & various, edited by Blake Bell (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-498-6 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Immaculate Seasonal Yarn-Spinning… 10/10

Once upon a time the anthological title of short stand-alone stories was a top product of the comicbook profession, delivering as much variety as possible to the reader. At the peak of that period, nobody could touch Steve Ditko for variety of touch and tone, not to say sheer volume…

Ditko was one of our industry’s greatest talents and one of America’s least lauded. His fervent desire to just get on with his job and to tell stories the best way he could – whilst the noblest of aspirations – was, at best, a minor consideration and more usually a stumbling block for the commercial interests which controlled all comics production and still exert an overwhelming influence upon the mainstream bulk of comicbook output today.

Before his time at Marvel, young Ditko perfected his craft, creating short, sharp visually attractive vignettes for a variety of companies, and it’s an undeniable joy today to be able to look at this work from such an innocent time when he was just breaking into the industry: tirelessly honing his craft with genre tales for whichever publisher would have him, utterly free from the interference of intrusive editors.

This superb full-colour series of archival hardback collections (also available as digital editions) reprints those early efforts for Charlton Comics published between June 1957 through July 1958 – with material produced after the draconian, self-inflicted Comics Code Authority sanitised the industry following Senate Hearings and a public witch-hunt.

Here are wonderfully baroque and bizarre supernatural or science fiction and fantasy stories – presented in the order he completed and delivered them rather than the more logical, but far-less-revealing, chronological release dates. Moreover, they are all helpfully annotated with a purchase number to indicate approximately when they were actually drawn. Sadly, there’s no indication of how many (if any) were actually written by the moody master, so it’s safest to assume co-creator credits go to the utterly professional Joe Gill…

This third tension-packed presentation reprints another heaping helping of Ditko’s ever-more impressive works: most of it courtesy of the surprisingly liberal (at least in its trust of its employees’ creative instincts) sweat-shop publisher Charlton Comics.

And whilst we’re being technically accurate, it’s also important to reiterate that the cited publication dates of these stories have very little to do with when Ditko crafted them: as Charlton paid so little, the cheap, anthologically astute outfit had no problem in buying material it could leave on a shelf for months (sometime years) until the right moment arrived to print. The work is assembled and runs here in the order Ditko submitted it, rather than when it reached the grubby sweaty paws of us readers. It also coincides with a brief period when the company began releasing double-sized giant issues…

Following another historically informative Introduction with passionate advocacy by Editor Blake Bell, concentrating on Ditko’s military service experience and admiration and relationship with artist, educator and major influence Jerry Robinson, the evocatively eccentric excursions open with ‘From All Our Darkrooms…’ as first seen in Out of This World #4 (cover-dated June 1957) wherein photographers worldwide begin seeing otherwise-invisible aliens in the prints…

When a brash and ecologically unsound new owner threatens an ancient stand of trees he falls foul of ‘The Menace of the Maple Leaves’ (Strange Suspense Stories #33, August).

Ditko was astoundingly prolific – as was writer Gill – and increasingly Charlton’s various mystery and sci fi mags offered more than one effort per issue. As well as the cover to Unusual Tales #8 (also August), the tireless creator crafted ‘Will Power’, a classical tale of the power of love and statues coming to life and ‘The Decision’ wherein a wise precaution saves humanity from a robotic rampage after which Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #4 (July) sees a devious long con wrecked by paranormal intervention in ‘The Forbidden Room’

A dictatorial brute earns a grim comeuppance in ‘The Strange Fate of Captain Fenton’ in Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #6 (December), before the cover of This Magazine is Haunted volume 2 #12 (July) ushers in a titanic tale of mythological woe and the end of ‘The Last One’, whilst, for one misguided soul in Strange Suspense Stories #35 (December), ‘Free’ is just another cruel word.

The belligerent threat of a ‘Stranger in the House’ (Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #5, October) is tackled through divine intervention, but far more mundane answers are forthcoming for the devilish spy on the run in ‘All Those Eyes’ in Out of This World #6 (November).

A quartet of later-rendered tales from This Magazine is Haunted v2 #12 come next: beginning with alien inimical invaders dubbed ‘The Faceless Ones’ who pick the wrong human to replace, whereas random, kind fate saves humanity from ‘The Thing on the Beach’. A tragic, lonely ventriloquist is unable to escape ‘His Fate’, and the showbiz theme expands to involve a crooked impresario holding shrunken people captive in ‘The Messages’

Behind the cover of This Magazine is Haunted volume 2 #13 (October) a lonely scientist and man’s best friend thwart ‘The Menace of the Invisibles’, before Strange Suspense Stories #34 (November, and with cover included) discloses an ironic fate for a manic Nazi hidden in the sands who can’t escape ‘The Desert Spell’

The cover – and its original art – for Out of This World #5 (September) are accompanied by ‘The Night They Learned the Truth’ – a twisted tale of nervous villagers extending a traditional unwelcome to a strange foreigner after which the cover to Unusual Tales #9 (November) segues into a tale of corrupt businessman getting what he deserves in ‘He’s Coming for Me!’

Two more from Out of This World #5 begin with bizarrely multi-layered tale of retribution ‘I Made a Volcano’, and wrap up with maritime monster mash ‘The Thing from Below’, after whichFather Help Me!’ (Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #6, December) adds a technological twist to the ancient dilemma of a good parent afflicted with an evil child…

A last contribution to Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #5, ‘Live for Reunion’ confronts a troubled child with a ghostly dilemma, before ‘Clairvoyance’ (Unusual Tales #9, November 1957) tackles the thorny problem of a super-child who only wants to be ordinary…

Guilt drives an unscrupulous businessman to see ‘The Scar’ everywhere in another mood message from Strange Suspense Stories #34, before more Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #6 resume with the hunt for a progress-wrecking guru in ‘Where is Kubar?’ and conclude with the unhappy revelations of a hypnotist who sees too much after saying ‘Look Deep into My Eyes’

Next up is a tale from one of Charlton’s earliest leading characters and the eponymous star of this volume. The title was developed from a radio show that Charlton licensed the rights to, with the host/narrator acting more as voyeur than active participant. “The Mysterious Traveler” broke the fourth wall and spoke directly to us, asking readers for opinion and judgement as he shared a selection of funny, sad, scary and wondrous human-interest yarns, all tinged with a hint of the weird or supernatural.

When rendered by Ditko, whose storytelling mastery, page design and full, lavish brushwork were just beginning to come into its mature full range, the works of Tales of the Mysterious Traveler were always exotic, esoteric and utterly mesmerising…

From issue #6 – and following a deftly compartmentalised cover dated December 1957 – comes ‘Tomorrow’s Punishment’, as a gang of crooks use a fortune-telling mirror to carry out their capers, after which a close encounter for a beggar makes him ‘The Man Who Saw Again’ (Tales of the Mysterious Traveler#8 from July 1958).

‘The Man Who Lost His Face’ is a tight alien invasion fable from Strange Suspense Stories #34 that leads seamlessly into a case of medical time travel salvation on a most fortuitous ‘Night Call’ (Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #6) before Cold War counter espionage makes an accidental hero of ‘The Atomic Clerk’ in Strange Suspense Stories #34.

Another cover and its original art (Out of This World #6, November) leads into a potent tale of unnatural nature in ‘The River’s Wrath’, after which Unusual Tales #9 shares a tale of perceived ‘Escape’ for an unrepentant fugitive, whilst ‘The Night of Red Snow’ shows an insular town the power of unfettered art and imagination…

‘Plague’ also comes from Out of This World #6, revealing how a bitter scientist almost destroys the world, before the cover to Tales of the Mysterious Traveler #5 (November 1958) precedes a triptych of thrillers beginning with ‘The Sultan’ whose thirst for oil leads to inescapable doom, carries on with the shocking vision an arrogant climber sees ‘Above the Topmost Peak’, and ends with a deadly case of mistaken identity for deep seas divers in ‘The Man Below’

From Strange Suspense Stories #34 (March 1958) comes a painful homily of trust despoiled when an elderly salesman honestly earns a miracle, only to realise he can’t rely upon his nearest and dearest, before this timeless celebration concludes with a selection from This Magazine is Haunted volume 2 #13 (October, 1957).

A craven white hunter steals an idol but cannot escape ‘The Drums’, even as a bum becomes ‘The Man Who Changed Bodies’, but can’t avoid the pitfalls of his own nature before a driven victim futilely hunts for a hated transgressor in ‘He Shall Have Vengeance’

This sturdily capacious volume has episodes that terrify, amaze, amuse and enthral: utter delights of fantasy fiction with lean, plots and stripped-down dialogue that let the art set the tone, push the emotions and tell the tale, from times when a story could end sadly and badly as well as happily and only wonderment was on the agenda, hidden or otherwise.

These stories also display sharp wit and honest human aspiration and integrity, making ithis another superb collection in its own right as well as a telling tribute to the genius of one of the art-form’s greatest stylists.

This is something every serious comics fan would happily kill or die or be lost in time for…
Mysterious Traveler: The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 3. This edition © 2012 Fantagraphics. Introduction © 2012 Blake Bell. All rights reserved.

Signal from Space/Life on Another Planet


By Will Eisner with Andre LeBlanc (Kitchen Sink Press/DC Comics/W.W. Norton & Co)
ISBN: 978-0-87816-014-3 (Kitchen Sink colour HB): 0-87816-370-0 (KSP B&W PB):
978-1-56398-677-4 (DC Comics Library PB): 978-0-39332-812-7 (WW Norton PB)

Here’s a long-lost contemporary cartooning classic which – although readily available in a number of formats – is still seen best in its first release. Ambitious and deliberately targeting an adult book-reading rather than comics audience, this initial collection of Will Eisner’s trenchant political thriller-cum-social commentary proves once more that sometimes the medium really is the message…

William Erwin Eisner was one of the pivotal creators who shaped the American comicbook industry, with most of his works more or less permanently in print – as they should be. From 1936 to 1938 he worked as a jobbing cartoonist in the comics production hothouse known as the Eisner-Eiger Shop, creating strips for both domestic US and foreign markets.

Using the pen-name Willis B. Rensie he created and drew opening instalments for a huge variety of characters ranging from funny animal to historical sagas, Westerns, Detective fiction, aviation action thrillers… and superheroes… lots of superheroes …

In 1940 Everett “Busy” Arnold, head honcho of the superbly impressive Quality Comics outfit, invited Eisner to take on a new challenge. The Register-Tribune newspaper syndicate wanted a 16-page weekly comicbook insert for the Sunday editions. Eisner jumped at the opportunity to move beyond the limitations of the nickel and dime marketplace, creating three series which would initially be handled by him before two were delegated to supremely talented assistants.

Bob Powell inherited Mr. Mystic and distaff detective Lady Luck fell into the capable hands of Nick Cardy (then still Nicholas Viscardi) and later the inimitable Klaus Nordling.

Eisner kept the lead feature for his own and over the next twelve years The Spirit became the most impressive, innovative, imitated and talked-about strip in the business. However, by 1952 he had more or less abandoned it for more challenging and certainly more profitable commercial, instructional and educational strips. He began working extensively for the US military in manuals and magazines like P*S, the Preventative Maintenance Monthly, generally leaving comics books behind him.

After too long away from his natural story-telling arena, Eisner creatively returned to the streets of Brooklyn where he was born on March 6th 1906. After years spent inventing much of the visual semantics, semiotics and syllabary of the medium he dubbed “Sequential Art” in strips, comicbooks, newspaper premiums and instructional comics, he capped that glittering career by inventing the mainstream graphic novel, bringing maturity, acceptability and public recognition to English language comics.

In 1978 a collection of four original short stories in strip form were released as a single book: A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories. All the material centred around 55 Dropsie Avenue, a 1930’s Bronx tenement housing impoverished Jewish and immigrant families. It changed the American perception of cartoon strips forever.

Eisner wrote and drew a further 20 further masterpieces, opening the door for all other comics creators to escape the funnybook and anodyne strip ghettos of superheroes, funny animals, juvenilia and “family-friendly” entertainment. At one stroke comics grew up.

Eisner was constantly pushing the boundaries of his craft, refining his skills not just on The Spirit but with his educational and promotional material. In A Contract with God he honed in on unexplored territory with truly sophisticated, mature themes worthy of Steinbeck or F. Scott Fitzgerald, using pictorial fiction as documentary to examine social experience.

One of the few genres where Eisner never really excelled was science fiction – and arguably he doesn’t in this tale either as, in Signal from Space, the big discovery is just a plot maguffin to explore politics, social interactions and greed – all premium Eisner meat…

As ‘Life on Another Planet’ the material in this collection was originally serialised as eight 16-page episodes in Will Eisner’s Spirit Magazine from October 1978 to December 1980, rendered in toned monochrome (a format adhered to and title revived in subsequent Kitchen Sink, DC and W.W. Norton collections).

However, for this luscious hardback, the auteur and long-time confederate Andre LeBlanc fully-painted the entire saga using evocative tones and hues to subtly enhance the sinister, cynical proceedings…

One momentous night, lonely radio astronomer Mark Argano – based at a New Mexico observatory – picks up ‘The Signal’: a mathematical formula originating from Barnard’s Star and thus proof positive of extraterrestrial intelligence…

One colleague wants to inform the public immediately, but Argano is adamant that they go slowly as he (secretly) harbours schemes to somehow “cash in”. Unfortunately, the other scientist he shares the secret with is a Soviet sleeper agent…

Almost immediately the first murder in a long and bloody succession is committed as various parties seek to use the incredible revelation to their own advantage. World-weary science advisor and maverick astrophysicist James Bludd is dispatched by the CIA to verify and control the situation, but he walks straight into a KGB ambush and narrowly escapes with his life…

There’s now a deadly Cold War race to control contact with the mysterious signallers and ‘The 1st Empire’ follows recovering addict Marco as he turns his life around; using the now-public sensation to create a personality cult dedicated to leaving Earth and joining the aliens. Whilst Marco’s Star People grab all the headlines, ruthless plutocrat Mr. MacRedy uses his monolithic Multinational Corporation to manipulate Russia and America, intending to be the only one to ultimately capitalise on any mission to Barnard’s Star…

Since travel to far space is still impossible for humans, MacRedy sanctions the unethical and illegal creation of a human/plant hybrid and starts looking for volunteers to experiment on in ‘A New Form of Life’, whilst Bludd – now more reluctant spy than dedicated scientist – accepts another undercover assignment.

Casualties moral, ethical and corporeal mount in ‘Pre-Launch’ whilst in distressed African nation Sidiami, a desperate despot declares his bankrupt nation a colony of Barnard’s Star to avoid UN sanctions and having to pay back his national debt to Earthly banks…

Soon, he’s offering a base to Multinational for their own launch site and sanctuary to those Star People anxious to emigrate…

In ‘Bludd’ the scientist and his sultry KGB counterpart find themselves odd-bedfellows just as the Mafia get involved in the crisis – for both personal and pecuniary reasons – whilst in America, MacRedy prepares to install his own President to expedite his company’s requirements…

Now determined to take matters into his own hands and screw all governments and interests, Bludd is caught up in an unstoppable, uncontrollable maelstrom of events in ‘Abort’, and, after the American President has a fatal accident in ‘The Big Hit’ MacRedy thinks he’s finally won. He is utterly unprepared for Bludd’s unpredictable masterstroke in ‘The Last Chapter’

Signal from Space is a dark and nasty espionage drama as well as a powerfully intriguing ethical parable: a Petrie dish for ethical dilemmas where Eisner masterfully manipulates his vast cast to display human foible and eventually a glimmer of aspirational virtue. This is a hugely underrated tale from a master of mature comics guaranteed to become an instant favourite. And it’s even better in this sumptuous oversized edition which is well worth every effort to hunt it down.

After all, Per Ardua ad Astra

However, if you can’t find this version, there are numerous later editions, in the original black & white that have their own potent appeal and if you were a really dedicated fan, you’d only be happy with both, wouldn’t you?
© 1978, 1979, 1980, 1983 Will Eisner. All rights reserved.

Gotham Central book 2: Jokers and Madmen


By Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka, Michael Lark, Greg Scott, Brian Hurtt, Stephen Gaudiano & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2543-8 (TPB)

There are two names horrifically synonymous with Gotham City, USA.

If you’re a cop, you keep your own opinions about the Batman, and it’s pretty much unanimous that the Joker is not someone you ever want to deal with. A madman with a homicidal flair for the theatrical, the clown loves a special occasion. It’s Christmas and it’s started to snow…

One of the greatest rewards of long-lasting, legendary comicbook characters is their infinite potential for innovation and reinterpretation. There always seems to be another facet or aspect to develop. Such is the case in regard to the much-missed spinoff series Gotham Central, wherein cop show sensibilities cannily combined with the deadly drudgery of the long-suffering boys in blue patrolling the world’s most famous four-colour city.

Owing as much to shows like The Rookie, Law & Order, The Shield or Blue Bloods as it did to the baroque continuity of the Dark Knight, the mesmerising tales of the bleakly understated series combined gritty, authentic police action with furtive, soft-underbelly glimpses at what merely mortal peacekeepers have to put up with in a world of psychotic vaudevillians, flying aliens and scumbag hairballs who just won’t stay dead.

This second huge paperback volume (also available in digital formats), collects more urban-level exploits of the hard-pressed peacekeepers of the most dangerous city in America – as first seen in Gotham Central #11-22 and spanning November 2003 to October 2004.

The patrol begins with moodily effulgent introduction ‘Noir Town’ courtesy of crime author Duane Swiercznski and a handy double-page feature re-introducing the hardworking stiffs of First Shift, Second Shift and the Police Support team comprising the ‘Gotham City Police Department, Major Crimes Unit’ before the dark dramas resume…

First up is uncharacteristic tearjerker ‘Daydreams and Believers’ by Ed Brubaker, Brian Hurtt and colourist Lee Loughridge which explores the GCPD’s strange relationship with the masked manhunter who unwelcomely assists their efforts.

They all know he’s out there, but the official line is that he’s an urban myth and the Administration refuses to acknowledge his existence. Thus, civilian receptionist Stacy is the only person allowed to operate the rooftop bat-signal whenever crises occur, whilst the public are informed that the eerie light is simply used to keep the cowardly, stupid, superstitious underworld cowed…

Here, however, we get a glimpse into the shy lamplighter’s inner thoughts as she observes the fractious byplay of the MCU regulars: all getting by thinking they’re fooling everyone else with their jealous bitching, petty sniping and tawdry clandestine affairs.

It’s all okay, though. Stacy has her own world to retreat into: one where the mighty Batman is her enigmatic but passionate lover…

The main event opens with a Yuletide shopping panic that looks to be the most memorable ever. Crafted by Brubaker, Greg Rucka, Michael Lark & Stephen Gaudiano, ‘Soft Targets’ finds the entire Major Crimes Unit frantically hunting a sniper randomly shooting citizens. Things get even nastier and more fraught after Mayor Dickerson is killed as he consults with new Police Commissioner Michael Akins.

The ruthless shooter guns down a school teacher and the medical examiner collecting her body and soon the pre-Christmas streets are deserted. The assassin then identifies himself by launching a website promoting “Batman for Mayor” and the appalled police realise just who they’re dealing with…

As Stacy turns on the roof signal her greatest wish comes true at last as the Gotham Guardian sweeps her off her feet… microseconds before a fusillade of shots nearly makes her the latest statistic…

As the Dark Knight vanishes into the snowy darkness after the maniac, Gotham’s Finest get back to their meticulous police work, tracking ballistics and hunting for the website’s point of origin. Mounting media frenzy and their own frustration lead to crippling tension and soon they’re all at each other’s throats, before a potentially nasty situation is immediately curtailed by a new posting…

A live web-cam feed starts, counting down to a fresh victim somewhere in the huge terrified powder-keg conurbation…

As the cops pull out all the stops to identify the building on-screen and resort to old dependables, such as violently rousting the Harlequin of Hate’s (surviving) former flunkies, the scene suddenly changes. Now it shows prime media pain-in-the-neck Angie Molina as a captive of the killer clown: stashed somewhere anonymous and slowly ticking down to a bloody and show-stopping demise…

And just when things can’t get any crazier, The Joker turns himself in…

Even the insufferably cocky kook’s capture doesn’t halt the slaughter, since the proudly Machiavellian perpetrator can carry on killing by pre-programmed remote control even as he languishes in a cell…

When Lt. Ron Probson elects to go all “old school” in his interview with the loon, it only results in his own death and the clown’s escape. Stacy barely avoids death a second time because Captain Maggie Sawyer saves her questions for later and shoots first – and often…

Working a lead, Detectives Nate Patton and Romy Chandler have meanwhile found the captive reporter and realised the Joker’s convoluted, mass-murderous endgame, but even with Batman on scene they don’t all make it out…

‘Life is Full of Disappointments’ (Brubaker and Rucka with art from Greg Scott) then focuses on disgruntled Second Shift veteran Jackson SargeDavies who is still chafing at once again being passed over for promotion – especially as prissy new Day Shift commander David Cornwell has been parachuted in from outside the unit to run things…

As the squad come back from burying their dead, Sarge and partner Nelson Crowe catch a nasty case: a dead girl in a dumpster. However, Stephanie Becker was no lost indigent or fun-loving party girl killed for the contents of her purse. She worked in accounting at prestigious Washburn Pharmaceuticals and was killed with an exotic toxin…

As the grizzled old-timers methodically work the facts, they connect a succession of odd occurrences which lead them to First Shift colleagues Tommy Burke and Dagmar Procjnow, currently investigating the suspicious death of middle aged widow Maryellen Connolly. She is a still-warm stiff previously employed in the same office and slain the same way…

All the evidence seems to point to an unsanctioned million-dollar deficit and deep Mafia involvement at the Pharma factory, but the diligent detectives keep pushing and discover a far older possible motive for the murders…

This gritty grimoire of Gotham atrocity ends with the bleakly chilling ‘Unresolved’ (Brubaker, Lark & Gaudiano from issues #19-22) which features the reappearance of conflicted fan-favourite and all-around slob Harvey Bullock after the GCPD reopen a landmark cold case.

Marcus Driver and new partner Josie Mac are called to a hostage situation where a deranged perp continually screams about voices in his head before eating his own shotgun…

The troubled stiff was Kenny Booker – sole survivor of an infamous High School bombing which shocked the city eight years previously – and the fresh tragedy compels Driver to take another look at the still-unsolved mystery…

The “Gotham Hawks” were a championship school baseball team eradicated in a locker room explosion, but every effort of Bullock and his squad could never pin down a single solid lead. However, when Marcus and Josie re-examine the accumulated evidence, they find a potential link to one of Batman’s weirdest and creepiest foes.

It’s not enough and they are forced to call in the disgraced ex-cop for a consult. The move is a huge mistake as they are utterly unprepared for the fallout when Bullock talks to them.

Apparently, the legendary maverick was fired after arranging the death of a killer the law couldn’t touch, and he took to drowning his days in booze. However, this case has haunted Harvey for years and now that he sees a possible solution, he goes completely off the rails in his hunger to finish things.

The trouble is that even now the facts tumbling in are increasingly pointing to a completely different culprit from the one Bullock always suspected, but the fixated former lawman just won’t listen…

Going on a rampage, he courts death by brutalising malevolent mobster The Penguin whilst miles away another suspect, galvanised after years of apparent anonymity, breaks out of Arkham Asylum and goes hunting…

Even after all this, the true story is far more twisted than the bewildered detectives could have possibly imagined and the eventual conclusion destroys further lives, sanity and honour before the dust at last settles…

From an era when comicbook noir was enjoying a superb renaissance, these classic thrillers are masterpieces of edgy, fast-paced tension packed with layers of human drama, tension, stress and suspense.

Solid gritty police drama seamlessly blended with the grisly fantasy of the modern superhero seems like a strange brew, but it delivers knockout punches time after time in this captivating series which was the notional inspiration for Gotham TV series outlining just how Batman’s city got that way…
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